There’s an unfortunate amount of pressure around losing weight and being “thin” in many countries these days. And though most of us do want to look and feel our best, the appearance-based weight loss culture is one we hope is soon a thing of the past. After all, everybody and every body is beautiful and worthy of love and respect, regardless of size and shape. It’s important to remember that your beauty and value are never contingent on your weight or your body composition. With that said, there are times you may want to tone up and lose fat, and even if it’s just because you want to look your best, fat loss can be a perfectly valid goal.
But we want to ensure that any efforts to lose weight or tone up are safe, healthy, and sustainable. The diet industry is flooded with unhealthy, ineffective, and sometimes even potentially dangerous fads and crash diets that put our bodies in stressful and unsustainable conditions. There are also an abundance of misinformation and weight loss myths. Even the term “weight loss” is a bit of a misnomer. Most of us are specifically looking to lose excess body fat, not weight in general (which technically includes bone, muscle, nerves, blood, organs, etc.).
We turned to two nutrition and fitness experts who specialize in helping individuals optimize their lifestyles, diets, and exercise habits for overall health and wellness. We picked their brains for all the best practices to promote fat loss and toning up so we can feel healthy, strong, and confident in our bodies.
Read on for 11 sensible and sustainable tips that will help you tone up, burn fat, and look and feel your best.
Meet the Expert
- Natalie Rizzo, M.S., is a registered dietitian in New York City and the founder of Greenletes.
- Joey Thurman is a health, fitness, nutrition expert, and television contributor. He is a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Fitness Nutrition Specialist (FNS), Barefoot Training Specialist (BTS) who offers home workouts on his YouTube channel.
Eating snacks between meals has the potential to prevent overeating come mealtime because it helps keep your blood sugar levels stable and the hormones that regulate your appetite in check. However, the quality of the snacks you choose will impact the satiety factor they provide—some snacks will give you that feeling of fullness until the next meal, while others only provide very temporary sustenance. Research indicates that high-protein, high-fiber snacks are far superior to sugary and fatty ones when it comes to tiding you over until your next meal. Opt for choices like yogurt with berries and flaxseed, hard-boiled eggs and a few nuts, or hummus and vegetables, and leave packaged, highly processed options like granola bars, applesauce cups, and chips on the shelf.
Aim for at least 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber in each snack.
Incorporate Weight Training
Strength training offers many benefits when your goal is fat loss. In fact, certified personal trainer Joey Thurman says that you should prioritize weight training over cardio, as increased muscle tissue “helps with insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning, which allows the food you intake to be used as fuel and help your body recover—as opposed to being stored as fat.”
Incorporating a strengthening routine has another important benefit as well. “Weight training also provides a metabolic boost for the day by way of the 'afterburn' or Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), where your body is burning additional calories after the session. This is something standard cardio does not do.”
In case you needed more convincing, Thurman says that strength training, “helps you decrease the risk of injuries, improves bone strength, increases well being, improves balance and [helps you] live longer.”
"My advice is to set a minimum step goal per day—and then from there add one to three cardio sessions where you can," says Thurman. "This could be something as simple as walking after every meal for 10 minutes to increase digestion and insulin sensitivity or a light jog or walk for 20 minutes after weight training."
The good news is that cardio choices are plentiful, so there’s something for everyone. And engaging in a variety of exercises will not only keep things fresh and fun, but will also help prevent overuse injuries. Consider power walking, running, spinning or cycling, swimming, dancing, rowing, using an elliptical trainer, rollerblading, and jumping rope, to name a few.
You can also add in one or two HIIT sessions per week, but Thurman says it should be no longer than 25 minutes. "This is TRUE HIIT and not some 'exertainment' class where your body doesn't get a rest. This should be a 1:3 work to rest ratio. For example a 10 second sprint followed by a 30 second walk for 10 rounds, followed by a 5-10 minute cool down."
Thurman says that weight training is also a great calorie burner that has cardiovascular impacts. "I would say to prioritize weight training over cardio as you can get cardio simply by daily movement like walking, playing with the kids, going to the store, or even doing household chores. You don't need to go all out every workout, save that for the weights."
Get Enough Sleep
"Sleep is most important, then diet, and then exercise," says Thurman. "It's true you can't outwork a bad diet. Look at it this way, if you are tired there's a cascade of events that will not make you feel good or get a good workout the next day."
Rizzo notes that the association between poor sleep and weight gain has been well-studied and demonstrated across a variety of studies and conditions. For example, a large study found that nurses who slept five hours or less per night had higher BMIs and increased weight gain over those who slept six hours, who in turn were not as well off as those who slept seven hours or more. “Scientists believe that lack of sleep may cause disturbances in appetite-controlling hormones; in other words, not sleeping enough can make you feel hungrier and eat more throughout the day,” explains Rizzo. “Also, when you’re tired, you tend to crave high-fat, sugary, and processed foods. Getting enough sleep (at least seven hours per night) is crucial for eating a healthy diet and losing fat.”
Thurman summarizes it this way: "Get your sleep, focus on your diet, prioritize weights, and simply move more!"
Get Enough Fiber
“Fiber is a critical nutrient for fat loss because it helps with appetite control,” explains Rizzo. This is because fiber contributes bulk to your diet without a significant number of calories, helping physically fill you up. This can translate to eating smaller portions of higher-calorie, denser foods. Additionally, fiber can help you stay fuller longer, so that you’re not grabbing for your next snack before you’ve even burned through the calories from your last meal. “Fiber is quite abundant in low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes,” adds Rizzo. “If you replace the processed foods in your diet with fiber-rich whole foods, there’s a good chance you will lose weight.” And research backs up Rizzo’s advice—in a weight loss study involving overweight individuals, those who ate more fiber lost more weight.
Incorporate Probiotics Into Your Diet
Supplementation with probiotics has become an increasingly popular wellness strategy in the past several years. And with good reason: Probiotics provide a variety of health benefits, from improving digestion to elevating mood to boosting the immune system. And they may even help you lose weight. A randomized-controlled research study found that supplementation with probiotics for six months resulted in significant weight loss and a reduction in BMI and waist circumference, even when diet and exercise habits stayed the same. Whether you opt for probiotics in supplement form or choose probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, they might be worth a shot. If nothing else, you’ll repopulate your gut with healthy bacterial flora.
Don’t Drink All Your Calories
“Many drinks contribute empty calories to the diet, meaning that they don’t add much nutrition other than calories and sugar, and for someone who is trying to lose weight, cutting back on calories is the key to doing so,” explains Rizzo. “An easy way to reduce your caloric intake is to avoid drinks like soda, sweetened iced tea or lemonade, or juices with added sugar. While they may taste good, they don’t fill you up.” Plus, research has found that sweetened beverages disproportionately increase visceral abdominal fat, the type that poses the greatest health risk. This means that your waistline, and your health, will take a big hit from a soda or juice habit. Rizzo advises drinking water or unsweetened tea and reserving calories for nutritious foods that fuel the body and promote a healthy metabolism.
Try Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is a diet strategy that involves having deliberately extended periods of time without consuming calories, followed by measured blocks of time when you are able to eat. The thought is that the body will adapt during the fasting times by burning more body fat and that by restricting the window of time when you can eat, fewer calories will be ingested, promoting weight loss.
Intermittent fasting can be a controversial weight management tip because restricting or withholding food from your body can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. For that reason, we strongly encourage you to consult your doctor and a dietitian or nutritionist before trying this strategy. Plus, intermittent fasting can take on a variety of forms and eating patterns, and trained professionals would best be able to help you establish what might make sense for your body. With that said, research does indicate intermittent fasting can be an effective strategy for fat loss and overall weight reduction.
Cut Down on Alcohol Intake
That glass of wine or two, or your favorite cocktail, may seem harmless enough, but don’t forget that alcohol contains calories. If you’re trying to lose body fat, alcohol is a good thing to nix because it can also slow your metabolism and lead to weight gain in some individuals. “Although you may be drinking to unwind or have a good time, overdoing it on alcohol can sabotage your weight loss goals. While you’re trying to promote fat loss, you’ll want to keep the alcohol intake to a minimum,” advises Rizzo. “You don’t need to give it up entirely, but stick to drinking on special occasions, rather than every weekend night.”
Sip Green Tea
If you’re a coffee drinker, consider swapping it for green tea to get your caffeine fix. Green tea has long been lauded as a healthy beverage, due to its high antioxidant concentration. And, as it turns out, it also can help you burn fat and lose weight. Research has found that regular consumption of green tea can reduce abdominal fat and the subsequent risk of metabolic syndrome.
Consider Your Stress Levels
Our lives are busy, and we face a lot of pressures and challenges, making stress an unfortunately common occurrence. And it’s not only unpleasant and emotionally taxing—it can affect your waistline and your health, too. “It’s no secret that stress can trigger some people to eat more,” says Rizzo. “For those who are prone to emotional eating, excess stress can cause you to reach for food to soothe your nerves.” According to Rizzo, the first step in rectifying this issue is recognizing comfort eating as a coping mechanism you’re leaning on. “Although reducing stress is very difficult, it’s important to recognize if you turn to foods in times of stress. If so, think about whether or not eating that food will really help you feel better,” she says. “More often than not, the answer to your stress problems is not food.”
Though eating to alleviate stress is a direct way that stress can cause weight gain, even if you don’t turn to food to cope, stress alone can impact your weight. Cortisol, a stress hormone, tends to signal the body to store fat, so it’s important for everyone to try and lower their stress levels. Healthy coping mechanisms include a variety of hobbies and activities such as journaling, yoga, walking, meditating, breathwork, crafts or coloring, social time, other exercise, etc.
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